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Testing is key to curbing AIDS among blacks

George E. Curry | 7/8/2009, 6:18 a.m.

Testing is key to curbing AIDS among blacks

Blacks are more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to have been tested for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, but will need to be examined at much higher rates in order to curb the devastation the epidemic is having on African Americans.

That’s the conclusion of a new report by the Black AIDS Institute, titled “Passing the Test: The Challenges and Opportunities of HIV Testing in Black America.” The report was made public to coincide with National HIV Testing Day, observed June 27.

Although African Americans represent only 12 percent of the U.S. population, we accounted for nearly half of all AIDS cases diagnosed in 2006. Black women represented 66 percent of all new AIDS cases among women. Although blacks between the ages of 13 and 19 comprise only 16 percent of U.S. teenagers, they account for 69 percent of new AIDS cases. Among men infected, 46 percent were African Americans.

More than half of African Americans know a friend or relative who is HIV-positive or suffering from AIDS. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 38 percent of African Americans have experienced a relative suffering from the virus and 20 percent of blacks had an acquaintance or co-worker infected with HIV/AIDS.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 52 percent of black Americans age 18 or older reported being tested for HIV at least once in their lives, compared to 38 percent of Latinos and 34 percent of whites. Still, that’s not good enough.

“Blacks actually need to be tested at much higher rates to ensure prompt diagnosis,” the Black AIDS Institute report noted. “Nationwide, well over 100,000 black Americans are currently unaware that they are living with HIV.

“In Washington, D.C.,” the report continues, “nearly half of all blacks surveyed said they had never taken the test. In a multi-city survey of young gay and bisexual men, two-thirds of black men who tested HIV-positive had previously been unaware they were infected.”

A major problem is that health care providers place a disproportionate emphasis on high-risk groups, such as gay or bisexual men and drug users, while failing to recognize that the virus has permeated all sectors of black America. For example, one study in South Carolina, where African Americans make up three-fourths of all people living with HIV, found that if efforts were concentrated only on high-risk groups, 79 percent of those with HIV would go undetected.

Not only must the entire black community be targeted, the key is to test everyone earlier.

“People who are diagnosed late in the course of HIV infection have a much poorer prognosis than individuals whose HIV diagnosis is timelier,” said Phill Wilson, CEO of the Black AIDS Institute. “In New York City, individuals whose HIV and AIDS diagnoses occur within 31 days of one another are twice as likely to die within four months of diagnosis as people with a non-concurrent AIDS diagnosis.”

In order to combat HIV/AIDS, we must know when and how the virus is attacking African Americans. Among black men, 63 percent are infected through male-to-male sex, 20 percent through heterosexual sex, 12 percent by drug injections, and 4 percent through a combination of drug use and having sex with other men.

The pattern is different for black women, with 80 percent becoming infected through heterosexual activity and 20 percent through drug use.

The Black AIDS Institute report cited four major reasons the epidemic has not been halted in Black America:

• The stigma associated with being HIV-positive;

• The failure of many physicians to include HIV screening as part of routine medical exams;

• A requirement by some states that a person must provide written consent before being tested for the virus; and

• The failure to increase testing rates though effective marketing efforts.

Wilson said many of the objections to being tested for HIV have been removed.

“There are agencies offering free HIV tests in nearly every city in America,” he said. “HIV tests are painless. The most common form of HIV testing today uses an oral swab — no more blood or needles. The days of waiting a week to get your results are over. With the rapid tests, you can get your results back in less than an hour.”

George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator and media coach.